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“Martin Luther or Philip Melanchthon…How Do You Vote”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Martin Luther or Philip Melanchthon…How Do You Vote”
The Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession (June 25, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City

I’m sure you could stand up here right now and wax eloquently about Martin Luther: how he boisterously banged 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany; how he defiantly declared, “Here I stand; I can do no other;” how he raged against Pope Leo X saying outrageous things like, “After the devil himself, there is no worse folk than the pope and his followers.”

But what would you say about Philip Melanchthon if called upon?  You could report that he said of Martin Luther, “I would rather die than be separated from this man;” that Melanchthon was a lay person—like most of you—and not a pastor; and though not a pastor, he taught Greek, New Testament, and theology at the same university as Luther in Wittenberg.

While dear friends, Luther and Melanchthon’s personalities were worlds apart.  Luther came off as arrogant and cocksure while Melanchthon was a peaceful sort, frequently seeking harmony with people who disagreed with him on key religious matters.

Luther once wrote: “I had to fight with rabble and devils, for which reason my books are very warlike. I am the rough pioneer who must break the road; but Master Philip comes along softly and gently, sows and waters heartily, since God has richly endowed him with gifts.”

It’s odd, really, that we know so little about Melanchthon for he wrote the most significant Lutheran document of faith.  How many of you, when reading this morning’s bulletin cover, “The Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession,” wondered what’s up with this?

Here is a little history lesson about the Augsburg Confession, not because I am so bright but because I was ordained on this day forty years ago; I served a church named “Augustana” (Latin for Augsburg) where our son, Caspar, was baptized and our other son, Sebastian, was an extraordinary thurifer who could create more clouds of incense anywhere south of heaven; I was installed at another church on this day; and yes, today, you celebrate with me on my 40th anniversary of ordination.  Is it any wonder I finally was able to learn what the Augsburg Confession is?  And yes, all along the way, on all these Augustana occasions, my dear wife, Dagmar, has supported me and guided me.

The Holy Roman Emperor wanted to know why the Lutheran reformers were making such a fuss in the 1500s and so, like any school teacher would do with unruly school children, Charles V asked the reformers to write a paper on what they believed and to present it in Augsburg, Germany, on June 25, 1530 (487 years ago).  The Augsburg Confession is the result and is one of seven confessional documents included in our Lutheran confessional book, “The Book of Concord.”

Understandably, some of you are murmuring right about now, “Pastor, preach about Jesus and skip the Lutheran lecture.”  You may even be boiling: “Pastor, today is NYC Pride.  Preach something that touches our lives, something that is relevant!”  I understand, honestly I do, and yet I believe the Augsburg Confession is a wondrous invitation to live vibrantly in our church and world, especially in these contentious days.

It is vitally important to know that Philip Melanchthon, rather than lambasting the opponents of the reformation, sought to illuminate the similarities that Roman Catholics and the emerging Lutheran movement shared.  The Augsburg Confession exudes Melanchthon’s humble spirit, often referred to as irenic in character.

I like that word “irenic” though I must confess when I first heard it, I had to pull out my Webster’s to see what it means.  Irenic means “aiming for peace.”

I dare say some of us who call ourselves Lutherans don’t fancy ourselves as particularly irenic.  We delight in Luther’s bluster as he angrily shakes his fists at his detractors.  Even though Luther championed Christ’s love for all people, we must be honest: his firm stands helped fracture the church in ways that have menaced us for 500 years.  You know that: you have attended a funeral only to hear, “Only Catholics can come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ.” You married a Roman Catholic and horrified poor grandma for ages unto ages.

Admittedly, there are occasions when we must stand up for the truth and yet, sadly, there are inevitably necessary losses that ensue.  If individuals, congregations, and entire denominations end up divided because of our beliefs, we must admit we have fallen pathetically short in achieving the vision for which Christ prayed on the night he died that his followers might be one as he was one with his heavenly Father.

It seems to me, in these days when families and congregations, religions and nations, are so frightfully divided, we do well to look at Philip Melanchthon.   He shows us how to seek a better way with our adversaries through respect and humility instead of bluster and swagger. As long as Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, let alone Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, quarrel and kill one another, we have much to confess and precious little to celebrate.  As long as we, the body of Christ, endlessly squabble with one another, Jesus continues to be ripped asunder on the cross.

The prophet Isaiah said: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”  Yes, God’s deepest longing is for peace to prevail among all people.

I have spent forty years now as a minister of the Church in the Holy Office of Word and Sacraments.  As I reflect over those years, I must confess there have been occasions when I should have been far more like Philip Melanchthon; all too often, humility and understanding of others have eluded me and that deeply saddens me.  On other occasions, when I should have been far more daring and adventurous, like Luther, I have been a cowardly lion.

I have discovered over the years that the Christian life—at least for me—is an endless struggle between cowardice and courage, bombast and humility. At least I never seem to get it quite right. Whenever we err on the side of cowardice and bombast, let us fall to our knees and pray for the godly gifts of courage and humility and for the wisdom to know which is the necessary gift at a particular time.

On this day of New York City Pride, I am mindful how our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has fought, sometimes ferociously, for and against our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender brothers and sisters.  While we have made significant strides in recent years to open our Lutheran doors wider, we still need to pray that we might open them even wider. This is where the seemingly cobwebby Augsburg Confession is so important.  Our central Lutheran confession claims that the church is present wherever the gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.  When we preach and eat and baptize together, we all taste the gifts of heaven, whether gay or straight, black or white, Republican or Democrat, young and old, rich and poor, yes, even Lutheran or Roman Catholic.

So, on this day, how do you cast your vote…for Martin Luther the bombastic one or Philip Melanchthon the humble one?  I can assure you these two giants of the faith would urge you to vote only for God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“Urgency!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“Urgency!”
Matthew 9:35-23
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Has anything in your life ever been urgent, really urgent?

Farmers understand urgency: the harvest must occur when the wheat is ripe.  There is no tomorrow. The time is now.

I know a bit about the urgency of the harvest.  I worked on a farm in high school and college.   One summer day, Herb Minch, my boss, informed me that we would build a forty-five-foot silo made of hundreds and hundreds of cumbersome concrete slabs.  I had no idea how long building a silo would take but imagined a week, maybe even two or three—after all, there were others chores to be done along the way: cows to be milked, stalls to be mucked, hay to be baled.  Imagine my alarm when I discovered we would unload all the cumbersome slabs from a flatbed trailer one day and carry them twenty-five yards to the building site the next where the silo would be built that very day.  When I rode my motorcycle home each of those two nights, on dark winding West Virginia country roads, I was certain I was about to die.  My stomach was bloody and scraped. I felt like a prizefighter knocked silly in the third round at Madison Square Garden.  I quickly grasped the urgency of the harvest.

Jesus understood the urgency, as well, even though he was a carpenter’s kid.  You will remember, he was the one who said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

I once read an article in “National Geographic” magazine about wheat harvests in the plains of the United States.  The article included eerie photos of combines, lights ablaze, harvesting wheat at four in the morning.  Wheat farmers run their combines, night and day, when the wheat is ripe. No delays, no excuses.  The time is now.

How many of us would stay up all night to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven?  Can’t this wait until tomorrow, maybe a month, perhaps even a year?  We might harbor serious concerns about a person who exhibits an acute sense of urgency, someone who seems incapable of waiting: are they suffering from some psychological malady that compels them to act so brashly?  Take it easy, we say. What’s the rush?  Shouldn’t we discuss matters first, hold a congregational meeting, make certain every opinion is adequately considered before acting?

According to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is so near that sick folks need cured today! the dead need raised now! lepers cleansed immediately! demons cast out instantly!  That’s the rush!

These are urgent days and we must travel light.  All Jesus offers us for the journey is a little bread and wine, a bit of water, and a Bible; that’s it—no excess baggage. Jesus urged us, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.”  Travel light for the Gospel’s sake.  Get on with it!

Oh, and by the way, Jesus never promised such a calling would be easy: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…they will hand you over to councils and flog you…and you will be dragged before the governors and kings because of me…”  Not a single word about success by the way—just urgency.

While it may sound overwhelming, I know you sense the urgency because I have been watching you for a year now.  In just the past few weeks, quite a few of you have picked up immediately and rushed off to visit your ailing mothers and your niece.  You packed light; no time to waste.  You didn’t count the cost of the plane or train ticket; you didn’t even think to ask your employer whether your time away would be considered vacation time or sick leave.  You just took off immediately for love’s sake to places like Virginia and Florida.

You sense the urgency, of course you do.  I have watched you visit your dear friend week after week who lives in a continuing care facility.  She is mired in the dense fog of her autumn years. She can’t quite remember who you are.  You often feel ill-at-ease, not sure what to say, and yet, knowing the harvest is so near, you start singing the first thing that comes to mind:

“Jesus loves me!  This I know, for the Bible tells me so;
little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me,
yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”

Oh, I have not only been watching you, I have also been reading your Facebook posts.  Just this morning, you wrote this: “There was once a woman who had a little three-year-old boy. And they were loved and a complete family of two, even unto themselves, but then she met a man and fell in love with him. And one day she invited this man to meet her son.

“As my dad tells it, he was sitting on the sofa in my mom’s little apartment and I was staring at him for a long time, as I marched circles around a coffee table in front of that sofa and quietly checked him out from head to toe. After several minutes of this I finally stopped, pointed at him, and declared, “YOU are my daddy.”

“At this point most men would’ve laughed nervously and quietly made a mental note to not date this woman (and her precocious kid) ever again. But my dad just smiled and looked at me and said “ok.” And we have never EVER looked back on the verbal contract we entered into on that day. Ever.

“I love to hear and watch my father tell this story because he his face lights up and he always smiles, and I know that he really, really loves me. And I know that he knows I really, really love him”…That, dear friends, is the urgency of the harvest.  Telling someone that we love them, not tomorrow, but today.

A good friend of mine received a card from a venerable pastor on the day he was ordained a minister of the church in the holy office of Word and Sacraments.  The card simply read, “Dear George, it will be a glorious struggle.”  This wise servant of the Lord knew what he was talking about: he served deep in North Philadelphia’s inner-city.  Whenever a row house was a burning inferno or a teenager was gunned down, desperate families came knocking at Father Black’s door first, no matter the hour.  They knew that he understood: the harvest is now, not tomorrow.

You know that, too.  There is nothing quite so invigorating as being called by Jesus to join the glorious struggle for the life of our groaning world as you are enveloped in the wonder of the kingdom of heaven fast approaching.  When Jesus calls you and you follow immediately, that is pure gospel joy.